Pompeii [part II]

pompei_-_tempio_di_iside1A second area of important public building is situated east of the original town, along the side of the Via Stabiana. It includes the ‘triangular forum’, left completely ruined and unrepaired after the earthquake. Next to it, to the east and accessible from the ‘triangular forum’ sanctuary, is an entertainment complex, the main open-air theatre, a smaller theatre contained in a roofed structure, and a gymnasium. By the main theatre is the sanctuary of the Egyptian goddess Isis. Of these buildings, the gymnasium and the temple of Isis had been fully repaired. The main theatre belongs to the Hellenistic period, but was completely reconstructed in the time of Augustus. The auditorium is horseshoe-shaped, rather than the more usual semicircle of Roman theatres, and its ends have a slightly angled alignment, not as pronounced as in a Greek theatre, but reminiscent of them. An inscription records rebuilding at the expense of Marcus Holcorius Rufus. The new building was embellished in marble. The stage takes the typical western form, a room running the full width fronted by niches, the central one apsidal, the others rectangular, in which are placed the usual three doors. The smaller theatre includes a curved series of seats within the rectangular structure, the stage being plain. It is essentially similar in arrangement to the building put up by Agrippa in the agora at Athens, so that it should be regarded as a concert hall, an odeum, rather than a theatre. Repairs to these structures had started, but were not complete when the volcano erupted.


A little to the north, still by the side of the Via Stabiana, are the Stabian Baths. These, too, had been damaged, but most of the necessary repairs had been completed. This is an interesting and well-preserved structure, a splendid example of the normal Roman bath type. Its origin is complex. The area is on the line of the wall of the earlier, smaller settlement, and the irregular shape of the block results from these alignments. After the expansion of the town and demolition of the wall, part of the area (within the original city, up to the wall) was developed as a conventional house. The rest, its alignment dictated by the new outer streets rather than the wall, seems to have become a simple exercise ground or palaestra of trapezoidal plan with a series of small hip-bath arrangements along its northern side. This still left a space between its eastern limit and the Via Stabiana, which is on yet another alignment. It was in this space, also trapezoidal but with an angle running in the opposite way to that of the palaestra, that the suite of bathing rooms was developed—essentially a series of rectangular chambers placed side by side, so forming a supporting sequence, over which came, as in the Forum Baths, vaulted roofs in concrete. There were two sets of these, changing room, cold room, warm room, hot room, a smaller set to the north, presumably for women, a larger set to the south for men, also provided with a sweat room.


On the plan the rooms seem haphazard and ill-arranged, merely fitted into the available space, though in fact they make good usage of the provision of heat from a central furnace complex. These irregularities were perhaps made less noticeable within the structure, where of course the impact was of the individual room, particularly since these rooms were decorated with fine stucco work, some of which survives. Even in their final form, the Stabian Baths retained their distinctive alignments, long after the early walls were forgotten, and the exercise ground that was the essential origin of the system.

A final area of public structures is tucked away in the extreme south-east corner of the developed city. This includes a large rectangular exercise ground (141 by 107 stabian-bathsm), flanked with porticos to the south, west and north. This was the Campus, and served as a training ground for the young men of Pompeii. At the centre was a large open-air swimming pool, 34.55 by 22.25 m. In the middle of the west side is a small shrine, presumably for the Imperial cult, and consequent upon the emphasis given by Augustus to the proper training and upbringing of the young. This faced onto the amphitheatre, the oldest to survive in Italy, dating back to the time of Sulla. Earlier amphitheatres are known to have existed in Italy, but seem to have been only temporary structures. The new Pompeian amphitheatre took advantage of developments in techniques of construction, employing cement, which had been perfected in the previous decades. The amphitheatre was constructed making use of the natural slope of the land above the river, but also by excavating down to form the arena, and throwing back the excavated earth to form a bank on which the seating could be placed. This bank of earth was retained in place by an outer concreted wall, elliptical in plan, which was in turn enclosed within another wall and earth fill forming a larger but flatter ellipse. Double staircases were placed against this at intervals, coming over arcaded supports. The result was an extremely durable structure which resisted the earthquake well, and was certainly in full working order at the time of the eruption.


The amphitheatre features in one of the rare occasions when Pompeii was mentioned by a Roman historian prior to the event of its destruction. In AD 59 a celebration of gladiatorial games in the amphitheatre provoked a riot between the inhabitants of Pompeii and the neighbouring town of Nuceria, who were visiting Pompeii for the spectacle (an interesting example of the way in which a substantial public building might serve not just for the inhabitants of the city in which it was situated, but for the neighbourhood as well). There was loss of life and many wounded as a result. The matter was referred to the senate at Rome, and a ten-year ban imposed on such gatherings. The whole incident was described by Tacitus, who implied that there were overtones of illegal association involved. The incident obviously created a local sensation, for it was recorded at Pompeii itself in the form of a wall painting which gave a bird’s eye view of the riot (a most interesting choice of viewpoint, given that the artist could never have seen an aerial view like this) depicting the amphitheatre complete with the fight in the arena, the seats, the riot, the two outer support walls to the seats, and one of the approach staircases with its arcaded support. Beyond were the city walls and towers, and to the side the Campus with its swimming pool.

Thus the public buildings of Pompeii comprise an interesting selection, though none of them is outstanding, the basilica and the amphitheatre being the only structures with any real significance for the history of Roman architecture, and that partly because other comparable structures of similar date do not survive in the same way. If we had just the ruins of these structures, Pompeii would still be of interest, but not of outstanding importance. What is important, then, is the simultaneous preservation of the complete town, of the ordinary, private section, the houses, the shops, not simply as foundation but with walls often intact, and with enough evidence to enable the restoration of roofs. Many of the furnishings were either removed (if portable) by the fleeing inhabitants, or if perishable, were destroyed, though some could be restored by the simple expedient of pouring plaster into the holes left in the volcanic ash when the original perished. Even so, enough survives, together with the decoration of the walls, to preserve the impression of real, actual houses, not just reconstructions on paper. It is this completeness which makes Pompeii more important as an example of an ancient city than it actually was when it functioned as a city.

The type of house which predominates is clearly traditional, though certainly influenced by the domestic architecture of neighbouring Greek cities; it can be traced back at least to the fourth century BC. The same type is found elsewhere: in the Etruscan area (e.g. at Marzabotto, of an even earlier date than at Pompeii), and, of course, in Rome itself. In Imperial Rome they belonged to the privileged minority, pressure of space forcing the ordinary inhabitants into the tenement blocks. There are signs of some pressure at Pompeii, houses being given upper floors which served as separate flats, but in general there was still abundant building land, and the single-storey traditional house survived for a wider stratum of society. Pompeii is therefore the best place to see these houses.


The type can be seen in one of the very earliest houses to survive at Pompeii, the House of the Surgeon, in the area to the north of the original settlement. It is built of the local Sarno limestone, with an ashlar façade, the internal walls a mixture of limestone and lava in rubble form, since they did not have to worry about their appearance, being covered in plaster. The inner walls are reinforced with large limestone blocks laid vertically and horizontally. The binding agent in this early structure, which predates the development of cement, is clay. The house is entered from the middle of its south-west side, where it faces onto the Via Consolare as it approaches the Gate of Herculaneum. There are three doorways on this façade, one the door to a separate shop to the right. The centre door leads into the house proper, and coincides with its axis. The door to the left of this is to a shop which also has a doorway communicating with the interior of the house. This shop is balanced by a similar room on the other side of the entrance, accessible from within. The entrance forms a short lobby, the fauces or ‘jaws’, generally closable at both ends, if only for privacy. It leads directly onto the main central room of the house, the ‘dark’ or ‘black’ room, the atrium. Its original form in the House of the Surgeon is uncertain. At the centre is the pool or cistern, the impluvium, which is normal in developed atria, and receives rainwater from the inward—sloping roof above, which leads to an opening directly above it, the compluvium. This may not belong to the earliest phase of the house, in which case water supplies would have been drawn from one of the numerous wells found within the city area.


This is important for the origin of the type. The atrium probably corresponds to, and may well be derived from, the central courtyards of Greek houses which must have antedated the House of the Surgeon with examples at nearby Naples. The pent roofs surrounding the peristyles of Greek courtyard houses served the same function, to collect rainwater and direct it into a cistern under the court, but in this basic Italian-type house there are no columns forming a peristyle to support such a roof. Traditionally (this is the Tuscan form of atrium, as defined by Vitruvius), the roof of the atrium is supported merely on beams which run across from wall to wall. There are two rooms of balancing dimensions either side of the atrium, and entered from it. The main rooms, though, are across the end, preceded by a widening of the atrium to the outer edges of the house. These widenings are the wings (alae), one of which would house the domestic shrine (the lararium). They correspond to the comparable widening in front of the main rooms often found in Greek houses and, perhaps equally importantly, in front of groups of rooms in very early Etruscan houses, where they often form a forecourt without any sign of an atrium. There are three main rooms at the end. The centre one (tablinum) is a reception room, and is open to the atrium for its full width. The others are domestic, one probably a dining room. This is the plan of the basic house, but even in the House of the Surgeon there are extensions to it, an irregular space to the right, entered by a corridor at the back of the ala. The tablinum is extended into this area beyond its original outer line. There is also more space at the back, entered through the tablinum which, being entirely open across its back as well as its front, appears to serve as little more than a passage, though the probability of the openings being closed with curtains is a strong one. Within this space is a small garden. This traditional house, then, with its basic rectangular and symmetrical plan, has already encroached into available spaces to the side and rear.


Other houses are more complex. The House of the Vettii, in the same district, retains some elements of the traditional form, the fauces and atrium flanked by rooms, as well as the alae, but the back of the atrium leads straight into a substantial formal garden, surrounded with a peristyle and a large tablinum-type room facing it from the side. There are other secondary areas incorporated into the plan, and staircases leading to an upper floor over at least parts of the house. The resulting plan is confusion, but the quality of the decoration in this house shows that it belonged to substantial people.

Epompei_-_casa_del_fauno1ven more splendid is the House of the Faun, one of the major Pompeian town houses, which has also clearly developed by the acquisition and inclusion of adjacent properties. There are the usual shops opening onto the road, and two fauces, indicating originally two separate houses, since both lead to their own atrium. That on the left is the larger, with three rooms to each side, as well as the alae. It is of the Tuscan type, without any internal supports. The atrium on the right is smaller, but has four columns round the impluvium (i.e. it is tetrastyle). On its left it shares the rooms of the main atrium; it is difficult to see to which atrium they originally belonged. The tablinum of the lefthand atrium is open at both ends to form a passageway through to a garden with a colonnaded surround; there is also a narrow passage into it from the second atrium. At the back of the garden is another tablinum, also open across its back and leading to a still larger colonnaded garden at the very back. The plot occupied by this house is large enough for eight basic traditional houses. It clearly incorporates two, one of which cannot have had a full plan, but the two gardens at the back indicate a clear availability of surplus land for those who were wealthy enough to acquire it.

pompeii27-the-house-of-the-faunThe standard, traditional, Pompeian house, of symmetrical arrangement and with the conventional elements in their proper places, is in fact something of a myth in Pompeii as it was at the time of its destruction. It is not even clear, as the House of the Faun shows, that Pompeii once, in its early days, normally constructed this basic type. Unlike most Greek planned cities, where the aim was to allot equal-dimensioned plots for individual houses, the blocks at Pompeii are often unequally divided, and because of the inconsistencies of the street plan, include irregularly shaped areas. It would appear that building plots were owned on the basis of available and therefore variable wealth of the individual families, rather than allotted on foundation by the community, though with the uncertainties of the early history and the exact contexts of the various extensions to the city plan, we cannot actually see the process at work. The result is that most of the surviving, eventual houses deviate quite considerably from the theoretical common type, either by being substantially larger and more complex (frequently incorporating adjacent properties), or by being smaller, without the full range of rooms, perhaps by abandoning the strictly symmetrical arrangement and not having rooms on both sides of the atrium, as must have been the case with one of the two houses incorporated into the House of the Faun.

pompeii30-the-house-of-the-faunIn some cases (the House of the Faun again) the more complex and extended plan is clearly not the original form, and encroachment on adjacent building plots may be a reason for the existence of smaller houses. But the main point is clear. Pompeian houses cannot be reduced to a simple type, probably always showed distinct variations, and in their complexity certainly reflect the social complexities of the city as it was in the first century AD. There is another clear point which emerges from Pompeii and its remains. The public buildings are largely of categories, or specific forms, which are identifiably Roman. There is no real equivalent, in the earlier pre-Roman state of the Greek cities, for the basilica, the bath buildings or the amphitheatre. Other public buildings—the theatres, the proportions of the forum, the exact type of the temples—reveal a distinctly Romanised form. The private buildings, too, as we have seen, are variations on an Italo-Etruscan type, in terms of plan and arrangement of rooms.

pompeian-style-2When it comes to the embellishment of these houses, and of the other buildings, the influence of Greece and the Greek cities is paramount. All houses, whatever their form of construction, had walls with painted systems of decoration above their plaster. In the nineteenth century these were categorised in the four ‘Pompeian’ styles: the first style went back to the second century BC or earlier, and was followed by the second style, the third style and finally the fourth style, which was popular at the time of the eruption. Further discoveries have shown that these systems were not limited to Pompeii (they occur at Rome itself) or even Pompeian in origin, for elements of the first style have been identified in painted plaster systems from Hellenistic Athens and Delos, and the second style at Alexandria and elsewhere, while there is a strongly Egyptianising element discernible in some decorations of the third style. Here we are seeing something which is universal in the Hellenised Mediterranean world from the Hellenistic period onwards.


Similarly, where these decorative schemes on the walls include actual pictures, the subjects are normally taken from Greek myth and legend (the example referred to above, showing the strictly Pompeian subject of the riot in the amphitheatre, is a virtually unique exception to this rule). Moreover, the style and the details prove that they are not original inventions of Pompeian artists, but copies, no doubt with a varying degree of accuracy, from presumably well-known originals by the great painters of fourth-century and Hellenistic Greece. The same is true of the other arts. Many of the statues are probably pastiches in the Greek manner, but there are also many important copies of famous Greek statues, particularly by the masters of the fifth century BC where, invariably, the original is lost and the Greek artist known only from the copies at Pompeii, Herculaneum and other Roman places.

pompeii120-vila-of-the-mysteriesThus Pompeii, far from being a vulgar place in the pejorative sense, fits into a general pattern of Hellenism. The towns of Italy develop through contact with Greece, and retain the essential characteristics of urban life that developed in the Greek world. There remains one puzzle. Though some Greek cities sustained enlarged urban populations through trade and industry, the great majority relied primarily on the agricultural exploitation of the surrounding countryside. Scenes such as that recorded by Xenophon in his Hellenica, of the democratic revolutionaries slipping into Thebes in 378 BC by mingling with the throngs of Thebans who had been working in their fields returning to the city at dusk before the gates were closed, must have been repeated— without the revolutionaries—daily over the whole of the Greek world. Cities were places where people lived together for reasons of safety, rather than in isolated farms in the countryside. The houses at Olynthus, dating to the fourth century BC, though part of a regular urban plan, include storerooms for the agricultural equipment used by the residents in their fields, together with storage for their crops.

pompei_-_tempio_della_fortuna_augusteaThe people of Pompeii must have had various sources of revenue, and by the first century AD rural estates, often on a substantial scale and related to country houses, were an important element in the economic pattern. Certainly the villas outside Pompeii were organised for the exploitation of the countryside, and some of them show, with their storerooms and other internal arrangements, how they were equipped to do this. The traditional Pompeian house, dating back in form to the fourth and fifth centuries BC, belongs to an earlier age, when peasant landholdings, combined with a house inside the fortifications of the town, were normal. No doubt the rooms to either side of the fauces of the traditional house, where they opened onto the street (rather than examples which form ‘porter’s lodges’ to the entrance passage) originally served the same functions as the storerooms of the Olynthan houses.

pompeii10-hrine-to-the-imperial-familyWhether they remained so throughout Pompeii’s history is uncertain. Many of them, particularly those with built-in mezzanine floors, were used as shops with the mezzanine providing basic living accommodation for the shopkeeper. Others have equipment or counters in them which prove their usage. That there was a need for shops is proved by the rows of purpose-built tabernae, such as those by the Forum Baths. A community less self-reliant, deprived of fields and unable to grow its own produce needs more shops, and these certainly are a feature of Roman as opposed to Greek cities. Even so, the pattern of similarity is strong. The contrast rather is with the dense packed metropolitan centres, with the population crammed into tenements, but here Rome and Ostia differ from the general run of Roman towns as much as Alexandria does from the Greek.